Te Vaka and the Tokelauan song for Disney’s Princess Moana
There was much excitement at Disney’s biennial D23 showpiece weeks ago when fans got their first view of Disney’s first major Pacific animated project – Moana.
It finally gave fans a first glimpse of the much anticipated and talked about Disney venture into Polynesia. Moana did not disappoint, in fact not only were the imagery, graphics, storyline created even more excitement and hype, but the music score and live performance by Tokelau’s Te Vaka provided the magical experience that fans can’t wait for the premier on 23 November 2016 to arrive.
Set in the ancient South Pacific world of Oceania, Moana Waialiki is the 14 year-old daughter of a Polynesian chief who learns that the future of her people is in jeopardy. In order to save her world, she sets off on a journey with her pet pig, Pua, and Hei Hei the rooster to find a mythical island that can connect her to her ancestors, the ancients, who will tell her the answers.
Along the way they team up with the demi-god Maui and on their journey, battle monsters of the deep and explore an underworld where the ocean is the ceiling above them. They finally encounter the ancient ones, but had to get past a vengeful island spirit made of molten lava, the Guardian of Tefiti.
Moana’s D23 debut revealed three major Pacific influences.
First is Seiuli Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnston who will voice the character of Maui. In a surprise appearance at D23, Seiuli told the audience how proud he is of his Polynesian and Samoan roots and the importance of ‘Aiga’ or family.
“This is my heritage,” an emotional Johnson told the audience. “I am proudly half-Samoan and half-black.”
Second is Victoria University of Wellington graduate and Maori writer, Taika Waititi who wrote the original script and is involved with the screenplay. His involvement ensures the Polynesian details in the movie are authentic and contextually accurate.
And finally, Te Vaka’s singer/songwriter Opetaia Foa‘i is composing the songs for Moana. They are part of a Hollywood elite musical team made up of Grammy-winning composer Mark Mancina (“Tarzan” “The Lion King”) (film score) and Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (lyrics) the mastermind behind the new Broadway show Hamilton, a hip-hop version of the life of Alexander Hamilton.
Te Vaka performed one of Moana’s songs at D23. It was a proud moment for Polynesians, especially Tokelauans, watching the performance to hear their language (Tokelauan) carry the melodies and tones of Moana to mainstream fans.
It also carried the realization that over the next 15 months heading to Moana’s opening date, Disney fans, Hollywood and global moviegoers will be humming Tokelauan words, listen to Polynesian sounds and rhythms and immerse in South Pacific imagery as Disney’s marketing machine slips into gear fueled by Te Vaka’s unique sounds.
Back on the three atolls of Tokelau, elders acknowledge with gratitude the achievements of Opetaia and Te Vaka on two fronts.
That they have done much since 1995 to promote Tokelau and its language to the world.
But more importantly, that Te Vaka’s songs and world tours have raised issues of great concern to the Pacific islands – family and cultural displacement, the tragedy of the 2009 tsunami in Samoa, drug culture among indigenous youth and the very real possibility that Tokelau faces total annihilation from the threat of climate change.
Elders note with pride it was those days long ago, from the very simple and lowly settlement of A’ai o To’elau in the Apia village of Alamagoto that Opetaia’s talent was honed and nurtured by Tokelauan elders. In his pre-teen years, tales and stories from his Tokelauan community handed down from generation to generation became his inspiration.
While the added infusion of stories from Tuvalu and Samoan elders, the wise storehouses of those valuable antiquity information became the raw material to write and create music to preserve the information for future generations, and tell Polynesia’s stories to the world.
Climate change became another source of inspiration for Te Vaka songs. With passion, Opetaia’s songs told the world in no uncertain terms that global warming, if left untended would cause the extinction of his homelands.
As for Disney’s Moana, those early days at A’ai o To’elau uniquely places Opetaia and Te Vaka to infuse Moana’s musical score with authentic Polynesian essence and stories that open windows to ancient Polynesia.
It is that essence that draws out Moana from her animated canvas to the real world of Tokelau today. That Moana’s journey, as she sails off to find answers to save her people in ancient Polynesia, parallels the Tokelau of today, a nation looking for answers and partners to stave off climate changes’ rising seas threatening to overrun their islands, relocating their people, and killing off their culture, identity, language – their very essence.